The mind's pot-pourri

Journal of Consciousness Studies
December 8, 1995

Some ten years ago, the term "consciousness studies" would not have held much meaning. The philosophers of mind did not really concern themselves much with the messy, physical brain: conversely, card-carrying neuroscientists viewed anyone of their number interested in "the mind" with a distrust usually reserved for those asserting belief in UFOs or ghosts. Although philosophers such as John Searle, and most scientists (with the notable exception of John Eccles), viewed a dualist approach involving a separate mind and brain as old hat, those studying the mind none the less maintained a wary distance from those studying the brain, and vice versa. Technical terminology and esoteric concepts on both sides ensured a mind-brain barrier more effective than that ever asserted for the mind-brain itself.

In 1986, however, Patricia Churchland published Neurophilosophy and showed how interdisciplinary discussions on a scientific approach to the mind might after all be possible. Experts started to look beyond the confines of their own particular fields to contemplate big questions concerning an individual's thoughts and emotions and, in so doing, legitimise issues previously regarded as "nonscientific". Eminent thinkers such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the mathematician Roger Penrose, the biologist Francis Crick and the immunologist Gerald Edelman have all produced bestselling and controversial books on consciousness in the past few years which have fired the popular imagination. And such works have, not surprisingly, in turn created a demand for more information relayed in an understandable form, more discussion and yet further exploration and research. Publications have now not so much snowballed as avalanched. It is in this climate that the Journal of Consciousness Studies was launched a year ago.

As its somewhat austere title suggests, JCS is no home for cranks lacking reasoned arguments: nor is it a coffee-table magazine. There are no spurious illustrations and no high price necessitated by technicolour. Moreover, the reader encounters mercifully few advertisements. The result is more than 200 pages packed with serious reading, that should nevertheless be comprehensible to anyone interested in consciousness. But though JCS has the apparel of a learned journal, it will be of value to a far wider audience than the usual specialist publications. In keeping with the spirit of the subject itself, which demands and inspires a multidisciplinary approach, submitted papers are refereed in two stages: first there is vetting by a general reader and, only if deemed appropriate for wide consumption, is a submission then passed on for scrutiny by the relevant academic expert. Although the papers are highly variable in length in accordance with the scope of each subject, the style and presentation is generally clear and easy to read for the nonspecialist.

According to the editors' scheme outlined in the inaugural issue, these refereed papers fit broadly into four categories: psychology/neurophysiology; nonreductionist approaches (such as those suggested by quantum theory); epistemology; ethical/spiritual/social issues. But these categories are not in force on the contents page, and it is not always immediately obvious into which category many a paper might have been pigeon-holed. For example, a neurophysiological model might well also be nonreductionist; a "new epistemology" might well touch on spiritual issues. Even the temptation figuring in the first issue, to divide the papers into "theoretical" and "empirical", has now been dropped in favour of a global pot-pourri of papers with consequently a truly multidisciplinary flavour.

Since the editorial board includes some of the best-known pioneers in consciousness studies, drawn from mathematics, philosophy, psychiatry, anaesthesiology, sociology and biophysics, it is not surprising that the subjects chosen are highly topical. Although a particular subject may never have been aired previously from a particular angle, for example Anthony Campbell's exploration of placebos from a clinical angle, a topic could just as easily be inspired by an existing oeuvre. The material might be a potted version of or direct reactions to a book. More generally, it could be an exploration of a new approach suggested by a book such as the "new physics" of Penrose.

As the journal has found its feet over the year, these interactions have become more of a definite feature. For example, in reply to the ideas of Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, which are given coverage in one issue, Rick Grush and Patricia Churchland have written an extensive reply, published in a subsequent issue - to which Penrose and Hameroff give a "robust" reply in the following issue.

Not only is JCS settling down into being the obvious forum for this type of debate, which would have been impossible over the time frames needed to write and publish entire books, the contents in general are becoming more focused. For example, the editors point out that the theme of the most recent issue is "realism". The forthcoming three issues will be "special" in that they will be devoted to the theme of the "hard problem", a term coined by David Chalmers to describe the question of how subjective experience could arise from objective, physical systems. We can only watch the journal to see if anyone too excited, impatient or tentative for his or her theory to be ventilated in a book has come up with an answer.

In an early review of JCS, Chalmers wrote that, to date, approaches were "too wild for the easy problems, but not wild enough for the hard problem". Surely however, it is not so much that specialist journals are insufficiently "wild" or neuroscience journals too "scientific", but rather that the subject of consciousness, by its very essence, sets out a different agenda before a different, albeit overlapping constituency. Subjective first-person phenomenology will require a different, or additional, treatment to that put to work in the objective third-person world. Scientific principles and methodology can still be employed; but we will not be able to rest content with objective measurements per se. It is easy to envisage that a theme so engrossing as that of the "hard problem" will run and run, but equally hard to imagine - were it not for JCS - where such valuable debate would otherwise ever have taken place.

Another unusual feature of JCS is the coverage given to "Interviews, Opinion and Correspondence", where over several pages, individuals can air their views, for example that Karl Popper has received little mention in the journal. More typically however, this section consists of interviews with luminaries involved in some aspect of consciousness. While, as in all journalism, the framework of an interview has an immediacy and appraisal element lacking in authors recording their own credo, the actual format - verbatim transcription - does not have as much impact as would a true editorial perspective.

Finally, as in most journals, there are book reviews. For those interested in consciousness, such reviews are arguably even more necessary than in the usual science journals, in that they guide the nonspecialist through the Scylla of purchasing overtechnical texts and the Charybdis of missing out on readable and valuable contributions. Indeed, many of the reviews are sufficiently extensive, probing and controversial to constitute minipapers in their own right.

Taken together, the different sections comprising JCS (refereed papers, interviews, opinion, correspondence and book reviews) have been used with flexibility over this initial year to adapt to the prevailing circumstances of whatever publications and controversies have come along. At the moment the "hard problem" has occupied a great deal of collective energy. As yet the social/spiritual/ethical issues have not had as much attention. Perhaps the editors, or aspiring JCS authors, would consider airing the following question. Assume the "hard problem" were solved - what would be the social and ethical consequences? Would we be able to manipulate the consciousness of others and ourselves to the extent that we annihilate the private invidual? Would a conscious, artefactual brain built according to some kind of familar groundplan have the same rights as its biological counterpart?

Irrespective of the particular topics covered in each issue, the overall impression, running one's eye down the contents page, is that JCS is more than just another journal: it is the first of its kind. Not only does no other journal focus on the same subject as JCS, it is unique in offering a forum for highly divergent individuals united in a "new", common interest and constituting an increasingly confident, if still rather self-conscious community. When I saw the flier promoting the first issue of JCS, I could not believe that there were a sufficient number of other people "out there" fascinated and baffled by what consciousness is, why it is present, and how it is generated. Just as JCS has served to identify us, it will continue to serve our ever more pressing needs, including the development of an e-mail basis for everyone to have their say quickly and easily. With JCS, consciousness studies have arrived.

Susan Greenfield is a lecturer, department of pharmacology, University of Oxford, and author of Journey to the Centers of the Mind.

* The THES is involved in a major consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona, in April 1996. For further information see our website: http://thesis.newsint.co.uk/TUCSON/az.html

Journal of Consciousness Studies

Editor - J. A. Goguen and R. Forman
ISBN - ISSN 1355 8250
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Price - £28.00 (inst.), £15.00 (indiv.)
Pages - Twice a year

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